And, happily, 1970s provided such.
Because out of the great jukebox-jazz hits of the 1960s, like Lee Morgan's "The Sidewinder," there grew a more contemporary form of soul/jazz for the new decade. And for me, this plush groove was beautifully integrated with a unique front-line sound, emotional solos played right inside the pocket, and some tasty-as-lime Fender Rhodes stylings that were, frankly, a lot hipper than all that fusion stuff. I write of The Jazz Crusaders.
|The JAZZ Crusaders, in the 1960s|
In fact, it was during this period that my friends and I first discovered The Crusaders. They were now recording for Blue Thumb Records, and they they made a string of discs that I will always love: 1, The 2nd Crusade, Unsung Heros, Scratch, and Southern Comfort. The sound of these discs is still unique. The band kept that trombone/tenor front line, but they added guitarist Larry Carlton. They still took long blues-based solos, but they became a band based around the sound of a Fender Rhodes electric piano, with its lush, bell-like chording and percussive right hand attack. This music was accessible but still an adventure—at least it was for a bunch of Jersey teenagers who were trying to find out way into jazz and needed more than just the gorgeous mathematics of Charlie Parker or the moody brilliance of Bill Evans. The Crusaders had some Texas stomp in their sound, but they still gave you the thrill ride of jazz improvisation. We were hooked.
We loved the guitar tone and slap of the funk on "Stomp and Buck Dance." We loved the looping bass line on "Double Bubble" and also how that tune used some funky acoustic piano in the middle of the groove. We could not get enough of the dastardly horn line syncopation of "Time Bomb," which we actually danced to. (Don't ask.) And, especially, I loved "Whispering Pines."
"Whispering Pines" still defies category for me. It has one of the band's most dashing but wistful melody lines, set over a hugely melodic bass line that spins in a precise arpeggio. Soulful but still cool, it seems like a theme that could introduce a news program or be a backdrop to heartbreak. And the tune inspired remarkable solos from the band. They were generous in length, and they built up slowly, rising and climaxing on a huge tide of melody. Under the improvisations was a dodging, weaving bass line that was in continual hide-and-seek with Hoopers snare and cymbals.
What The Crusaders seemed to have perfected around 1974 was a hip music that incorporated soul into jazz, but a way that created a singular signature sound. This wasn't music that grew out of Bitches Brew. It wasn't "fusion" as the '70s would come to define that word. It wasn't clinical or calculated or framed for market, though it sold pretty well. It was genuinely soulful, and it was still jazz, no matter what name the group had adopted.
Once Reagan was president, plenty of things fell apart, and The Crusaders were gone before you could say "I remember Oliver North." Henderson left years earlier, in '75, and Hooper split in 1983. Only Joe ample remained active over the next couple of decades, finding a place for himself in the Kenny G-iverse. At which point I'm not sure it was really any longer cool to admit how great you had found The Crusaders back when you were a kid.
The last couple of years of demonstrated, however, that a good idea never dies. Felder and Sample recorded as "The Crusaders" again in 1991, then again in 2003. In the mid-90s, Henderson wrangled Carlton and Felder into recording (to Sample's chagrin) as "The Jazz Crusaders."
And then, in 2010: word started spreading of true reunion dates with Henderson, Felder and Sample all in on the action again. Almost completely under the radar, the group played at Yoshi's in the Bay Area in the spring, but then word was out that Felder was ill, and replacement reed players were in the band. They've had dates scheduled in recent weeks in places like Milwaukee.
Personally, I miss them. The clarity and soul of The Crusaders ushered me into caring about jazz, into listening to the stories that its players have to tell.
Love live The Jazz Crusaders.
Next Time: Grover Washington, Jr—Another Blast of Soul